Several years ago I shared how the government would back a Malay candidate for President after Nathan. The 2011 PE was an all Tan affair. However, the recent EP Commission has made clear the government's intention of a minority president from time to time.
Traditionally, Speakers of Parliament would likely be proposed as presidential candidates. Thus, since Abdullah Tarmugi and Halimah Yaacob's appointments as Speaker, I had been expecting one of them to be backed by government as their choice for President.
But has Singapore really lacked minority presidents?
The fact is that we already had minorities as a president in recent memory, and that minority presidents are not abnormal for Singapore. In fact, they are far more common than a minority PM.
Here are the ratio of Minority vs Majority presidents in terms of tenure and term.
Malays: 5 years (1 term).
Indian and Eurasians: 25 years (4 terms).
Chinese: 20 years (3 terms).
Total Minority: 30 years (5 terms).
Thus, we have had more minority presidents since our formation as a republic.
If the EP scheme was seen as a barrier to minority candidacy, SR Nathan certainly disproves that notion as he ran both terms unopposed. If we measured the ratio of Minority vs Majority EP by tenure and term, we would get the following result:
Malays: 0 years (0 term).
Indian and Eurasians: 12 years (2 terms).
Chinese: 12 years (2 terms).
Total Minority: 12 years (2 terms).
Thus there seem to be an equal number of tenure and terms between minority and majority races which debunks the idea that there is a risk we won't have a minority president from time to time.
At this time, the statistics disprove the government's point of view. But that does not mean the concern is not valid in time to come. Elections are emotive and if it was 4 Tans and 1 Abdullah, it does not take a genius to figure out that the minority candidate would statistically lose out in such a contest. Perhaps that's why Nathan's terms had been no contests which saw applicants rejected for not fulfilling the minimum criteria. Would he have survived a contest with a majority candidate? Well now with the EP constitutional changes, we would definitely never know.
I am convinced that the issue of race for EP constitutional changes is not the main concern for the government. This issue seems to dominate the reasons behind the government's desire to make constitutional changes regarding the EP. If race was a major concern, the government would have accepted the Commission's proposal to revert to an appointed President and rotate races. The issue appears to be raising the standard and quality of potential EPs which I completely agree with.
Whether it is to prevent popular personalities like Tan Cheng Bock from running is all speculative. I don't agree that it was ever the intention of the government to bar anyone specific. But I do agree that the government's white paper limits potential candidates to the elite few who are more often than not, more supportive of the incumbent government.
Halimah for President anyone?
Well, I certainly don't mind. But it does not matter to me which racial group the president is from. What's more important to me is that the President can do her job. Which brings me to the next question. Has the Office of the President shown any flaws that it won't be able to do its job? Specifically, protecting our reserves from a rogue government? The other duties being to approve changes to key appointments, and to exercise oversight over the CPIB and decisions of the Executive of the ISA, and to maintain racial and religious harmony, does not seem to be an issue.
The minimum criteria to stand for EP is currently to be an executive director of a company that holds $100 mn in equity. We do not know exactly how much past reserves we have (Note: the constitution protects the drawings from past reserves, not new ones). But it's likely now beyond $100 mn. So I do agree that this requirement should be revised to match the size of the amount of reserves we have. But if it was all there is to it, then why the need for an EP Constitutional Commission?
That is why the matter of race was brought up. When the Office of the Yang Di-pertuan Negara was created, it was a non-executive office, similar to that of Kings and Sultans, and they were the Head of State. In order to be the YDPN, you need to be awarded the title of Tun, which puts you on par with Malaysian royalty. As the Head of State, your job was to represent the people. When the office was later renamed President after our separation from Malaysia, the roles and duties remained the same. The President must not be politically affiliated. Which is why one cannot be a card carrying member of any political party. He must be above politics, and he must be the uniting figure for all Singaporeans.
The EP scheme was introduced primarily to ensure a rogue government (whether PAP or otherwise), do not plunder past reserves. It did introduce the complexity of ensuring equal representation from the main races. So far, we've had more or less fair representation of the races despite the EP. Malays haven't had any representation so far (since the EP scheme), simply because no qualified person has applied to contest. It's not that there aren't any capable candidates out there. It's just that they probably don't want to.
So if these changes do not actualise, there is a possibility there won't be a Malay President in the near future. But does it matter? A president is supposed to represent all of us, regardless of race. It does not even matter to me if a Malay can become PM. What matters is that they can do their job.
So how do you choose a President to represent all of us? Improve the electoral process. By all means, change the eligibility criteria. But if we end up with 35% wins in 2017 as well, how do you expect the President to have a mandate and to bind all of us?
Why not, instead of choosing one or the other, we vote based on a rank of 1 to 2. We all have our first choices. But if there is no one that has at least 50.1% mandates, then the second choice options count. So if we revisit PE 2011, if we had 2 ballot papers, one for 1st choice, and the other for 2nd choice, then at least we could have Presidents that have clear mandates and bind the people together.
Hopefully the government can consider my idea and possibly scrap the racial trigger in favour of something more racially neutral.